The technology behind the Olympic Games

Technology and the Olympics
Image: ECityBlues CC-SA

The Challenge

Technology behind the Olympic Games
Image: Andrea Vascellari CC-BY-NC-SA

The Olympic Games in London this July will represent an unprecedented challenge not only for the athletes but for the teams running the information technology behind the scenes. Covering 94 venues and 10,000 athletes, organisers must time and record each event and report the results to over 22,000 members of the media and millions of spectators in milliseconds of the finish.

The 2012 games will also be bigger than ever: Atos, the IT partner for the games, expects to process 30% more results data than in Beijing 2008. All 300 events in London will be captured from multiple angles, with over 2,500 hours of high definition video each. Audiences are expected to reach 4 billion.

The IT System

To achieve these goals Atos will employ 900 servers, 10,000 computers, and 450 staff, supported by miles of high speed fibre optic network cable. There are two primary systems: the games management system, which manages workers, staff, logistics, participation eligibility, and scheduling, and the results information system, which records event results in a vast Microsoft SQL database. This second system includes the Commentator Information System (CIS) which delivers statistics to the media via a web interface.Testing the systems began in January 2011 and will involve 200,000 hours of load testing, making sure the system can cope with the highest demands. Results data from previous games is used during the test, with Atos simulating the broadcast demands of the three busiest days of the games to ensure their systems can keep up.

Fully redundant systems, capable of taking over immediately if a primary system fails, are used for all timing and recording. Times are also backed up and printed out immediately. Part of the system testing involves scenarios including fires in the technology centre and power failures.

Technology in Training

Technology behind the Olympic Games
Image: Adam Bowie CC-BY-SA

Using telemetry technology borrowed from Formula 1 racing, British cyclists have been monitoring their performance during training for the Olympics. Instead of manually measuring athlete performance and recording it in a spreadsheet, embedded transponders in cyclists’ bikes transmit is read every lap by a reader under the start / finish line. This is collated and analysed to assess cyclists’ performance and look for small areas for potential improvement. The automated data collection system is much more accurate that manually measuring speeding cyclists, and allows much more data to be collected and analysed. Team GB are hoping that many small improvements identified using this system will add up to a significant advantage in July 2012.

Ticketing Technology

The ticketing process was not a great start to the 2012 London Olympics. Despite having six years to prepare, the Ticketmaster web site was unable to cope with the initial demand and crashed, forcing organisers to extend the application deadline. Then, an apparent lack of synchronisation between the ticket database and the web site meant thousands of users were told they had secured tickets, only to be later told that they had none. Many people were left frustrated and they went through a long online purchasing process only to discover the site unresponsive or that tickets had already sold out. Other tickets were sold twice (double-booked).

Critically, Olympic tickets could only be purchased online, disadvantaging those without Internet access at home (still 17.5% of the UK population). Analysis of data from ComScore, which showed visitors to the London 2012 tickets site were “disproportionately rich female Londoners”.

Olympic Timing

Technology behind the Olympic Games
Image: Asten CC-BY-NC

Olympic Track events are timed to 1/1000th of a second. Track events no longer begin with the starting pistols of old. Instead a computer determines when the race will start, and sends an electronic signal to each of the athlete’s starting blocks, which plays the sound of the pistol. Each block contains a speaker so that all athletes hear the sound simultaneously.

In track and swimming events, pressure sensors in the starting blocks are used to detect false starts – if the pressure on the block is reduced within 1/10th of a second (the average human reaction time) of the pistol sound playing, a false start is declared. In relay events a similar system is used to make sure a competitor’s team mate does not “react” to being tagged before they actually are tagged.

At the finish l100ine, two systems are used to detect the winner: a laser fired across the finish line is broken by athletes as they pass, recording their time, while high speed digital cameras record them passing by. The 2000 frame per second images are used in case of a photo-finish. In swimming events, pressure sensors on the edge of the pool detect who touched the wall first. Such technology is critical in today’s ultra-competitive events: in 2008 for example, Michael Phelps beat Serbian Milorad Cavic in the 100m butterfly by just 0.13 seconds – as measured by the touch sensors.

Technology and the Olympics
Image: ECityBlues CC-SA

In events such as cycling and the marathon, slightly different systems are needed because not all competitors cross the start line at the same time. To calculate each competitor’s individual time, an RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tag is embedded in their cycle or their clothing. This is detected by an RFID antennae at the start and finish lines when they pass over, allowing their total time to be calculated and compared with other competitors.

Broadcast technologies

Even before the games begin, broadcasters have been busy following the Olympic torch as it travels 8000 miles, carried by 8000 people, before reaching London. Every moment has been broadcast live on the web. To cope with recording a constantly moving procession, broadcasters resorted to transmitting video data using 3G connections – more commonly associated with mobile phones.In the Olympics themselves, the demands are even higher. Once race timing information is calculated, it is sent from timing computers to the scoring systems, where it is immediately made available to the media, spectators and, in London 2012, live over the Internet. The BBC will broadcast all events live in high definition, and some will be broadcast in 3D – a technological first. To get audiences as close to the action as possible, wireless cameras and wireless microphones will be positioned right next to the tracks, pools, and arenas.

The Olympics are expected to put huge demands on Internet bandwidth. Athletes and team members in the Olympic village will all have WiFi¬† access supplied by BT’s 100 Mbps fibre optic technology, while Virgin Media recently equipped 80 London Underground stations with WiFi. British Telecom, the Internet Service Provider for the games, is providing four times as much bandwidth as in Beijing 2008. At peak times, in the finals for major events with users streaming live footage, bandwidth consumption is predicted to hit 60 Gbp. Mobile phone companies will also need to ensure their networks are capable of handling the demand from smart phone users. The demand is also expected to cause a disruption for local businesses, who have been warned to expect and prepare for disruptions to their Internet services during the games. Some ISPs have said they may even introduce bandwidth caps.

Payment Technologies

Olympic Oyster CardOlympic spectators should be able to avoid long queues to pay for refreshments and souvenirs thanks for contact-less credit card technology. Many UK banks now issue “wave and pay” cards that avoid long waits for authentication and authorisation.The cards contain embedded microchips and use RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) technology to communicate wirelessly with an RFID reader. Payments are made by moving the card within 5cm of the reader device. The Olympic systems use an open standard rather than requiring proprietary cards (such as the London Oyster card). Payment points at all Olympic venues, on London buses, in 2,000 London cabs, and businesses across the capital have been upgraded to accept this technology.For security reasons, contact-less transactions will be limited to ¬£15, and users will be required to enter their PIN once several such transactions are made.

There are also plans for mobile phone apps that will allow payment using a smartphone.

Games Security

Security is a major issue for the Olympics, but organisers have worked with intelligence services to examine possible attacks such as Distributed Denial-of-Service (DDos) attacks and put procedures and precautions in place.More likely to cause a problem are social-engineering attacks against regular computer users. As with any major event, viruses, malware, and phishing scams targeting the Olympics have already sprung up, with users enticing to check out latest Olympic information or photographs, then infecting their machines. As always, users are warned to avoid opening unsolicited email.

Sources and Further Reading

  1. Virtual London 2012 Olympics off starting block (BBC)
  2. BBC aims for Olympics technology legacy (BBC)
  3. 2012 Olympic team borrows F1 technology (Guardian)
  4. HowStuffWorks: Olympic Timing (HowStuffWorks)
  5. London 2012: The importance of Olympic timekeeping (BBC)
  6. London 2012 Olympics: Tech on the starting blocks (Tech Republic)
  7. London 2012: Tech systems face their most critical hurdle (Tech Republic)
  8. London Olympics 2012: Businesses prepare for tech disruption (Tech Republic)
  9. This year the contactless ‘wave and pay’ revolution finally begins (Guardian)
  10. How the Olympic torch is broadcast live on the web (ITGS News)
  11. Olympic software engineers enter final leg of marathon IT development project (ComputerWeekly)

IB Geography
IB geography students will find the Greenfield Geography wiki invaluable. The 2012 Olympics are used in a very detailed and well written Case study of a contemporary international sports event and urban regeneration.

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